As Harris County judge, Ed Emmett led the state's biggest county — 4.7 million people — through its most devastating natural disaster. That work won the moderate Republican bipartisan support, even in a county that overwhelmingly went blue in 2016.
But last week, Emmett lost his re-election bid in a close race — the closest in the county. And come January, the incumbent will turn his job over to Democrat Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old political newcomer who had never attended a meeting of the commissioners court she will now lead (she has, she said, watched them online). At the top of the ticket, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz lost the county by more than 200,000 votes; Emmett’s race — midway down the longest ballot in the country — was decided by a margin of about 19,000 votes.
That result, strategists say, makes Emmett the latest casualty of straight-ticket voting in Texas. In Harris County, more than half a million voters pulled one lever to support every Democrat on the ballot, and just over 400,000 Republicans did the same. Emmett — a moderate who had focused his campaign on persuading the Democrats who favor him to make their way far enough down the ballot to back him — made up much of that difference, but he couldn’t quite eke out a win.
“Keeping the straight ticket option for 1 more election cycle turned out to be a disaster for all Republicans,” Emmett tweeted the day after the election. “Making up the deficit was just not possible.”
Straight-ticket voting will end before the 2020 elections, bringing Texas into line with the vast majority of states. But the change didn’t come early enough to save Emmett — or a host of other down-ballot Republican candidates like judges, who are disproportionately affected by the practice by virtue of their low profiles and low ballot placement.
Republicans — who lost numerous down-ballot officials, a dozen state House members and scores of judges, particularly in big cities — in some ways brought those losses upon themselves: The law that ended straight-ticket voting was written and approved by GOP lawmakers. It was originally set to go into effect before this year’s elections, but was at the last minute delayed until 2020.
“2018 will not be the same as 2014”
If the top culprit for down-ballot Republican losses last week is a certain El Paso Democrat credited with drawing flocks of new voters to the polls, the second spot might go to straight-ticket voting. Yes, the argument goes, a lot of new Democrats came to the polls to cast their ballots for U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke in his campaign for U.S. Senate. In the process, many voted for other Democrats down the ballot who they knew little or nothing about. But without the one-punch option, GOP operatives argue, many of those voters would have walked out before dooming Republicans at the bottom of the ballot.
Straight-party voting “is the story” of this year’s election, said Dallas County GOP Chair Missy Shorey, whose county saw a rout of local Republicans.
Among the casualties: 12 members of the Texas House, many of them in the Dallas area; two state senators representing North Texas districts; down-ballot county officials in a host of purpling regions; and nearly two dozen Republican judges on state appeals courts.
After the 2020 elections, when straight-ticket voting ends, candidates will still appear beside their party affiliations, but most strategists expect fewer voters will make it all the way down to the local races. It’s hard to say what the statewide impact of that will be — many Republicans straight-ticket vote, too, and voters can still choose to select all the candidates in their chosen party manually — but in the wake of a tough election for down-ballot Republicans, especially on the fringes of the state’s biggest cities, some are wishing the option had ended in 2018.
At first, that was the plan. Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons’ House Bill 25, which ended straight-ticket voting, was originally set to go into effect before the 2018 midterms; it passed the House with that language, and made it all the way to the Senate floor. Just before the bill passed in the upper chamber, Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock, of North Richland Hills, tacked on an amendment delaying the effective date to 2020.
The delay, some local GOP officials said, particularly doomed down-ballot Republicans in or near urban areas like Houston, Dallas and Austin.
“I’ve been warning about it for years,” said Harris County GOP Chairman Paul Simpson. “At the last minute, they put it back in for 2018, and I told some legislators then, ‘2018 will not be the same as 2014.’”
Hancock told The Texas Tribune this week that “we waited one election cycle for implementation to allow plenty of notice for everyone, including candidates, election administrators, and voters."
Many Republicans tout the end of straight-ticket voting as a way of ensuring good governance.
“Eliminating straight-ticket voting has never been about benefiting one party or the other — it is promoting good government by making sure that every voter knows who they are voting for and what their qualifications are,” said Sherry Sylvester, a senior adviser to Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
When the bill passed the Texas Senate, it drew most opposition from Democrats, who questioned whether eliminating the one-punch option would disproportionately hurt voters of color. A federal judge found as much in a Michigan lawsuit.
Ultimately, in this election, straight-ticket voting seems to have worked largely to Democrats’ advantage.
Simmons, who was unseated from his Carrollton district on Election Day, said he believes straight-ticket voting played a role in the loss.
“If we had to look at it again, there are people that might have wished we could have [ended] it in 2018,” he said. There are “probably 12 House members” who are regretting the delay, he said.
Many of those House members are, like Simmons, in the Dallas area, where Republicans lost several state House seats, a Democrat picked up a Republican-held congressional seat and an appellate court that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1992 flipped into Democratic control.
No one predicted the consequences better than the lieutenant governor, who warned of such an outcome during campaign season.
“Their plan was to give all the money, on the Democratic side, to Beto the Irishman O’Rourke,” Patrick warned at a New Braunfels campaign event in October. “Understand their strategy. If they can get to 4 or 5 [percent margin], if they can get a 75 or 80 percent straight-ticket vote on their side, guess what? Beto loses. But then they pick up judges down ballot. They pick up House members down ballot. They pick up state senators down ballot. They pick up local races down ballot.”
Emmett faulted the upper chamber, which Patrick leads, for failing to prevent that possibility.
“When the state Senate decided to keep straight-ticket voting for one more year, a lot of us thought that was a really dumb decision,” Emmett told a Houston TV station shortly after his loss last week. “It turned out to be even dumber than any of us could’ve predicted.”
“Some people that ought not to be there”
Even as Democrats celebrate their victories, some quietly acknowledge that their winning candidates are not all equally prepared to take office. Especially in down-ballot judicial sweeps like those that flipped four state appeals courts last week, some strong, well-funded candidates enter office with years of experience while others are swept in on the top of the ticket’s coattails. Some appellate lawyers are warily looking ahead to courts with new ideological bents and less experienced judges.
On the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, for example, some candidates raised tens of thousands of dollars, while others were largely absent from the campaign trail. In Dallas, the differences were even more stark. Ken Molberg, a longtime judge in the area and a former Dallas County Democratic Party chairman, outraised his fellow Democratic candidates by orders of magnitude. But come Election Day, they won by similar margins — a sign of the little attention paid to down-ballot races.
“I’m old enough to have lived through various party sweeps with the straight party voting, and generally, when you have a sweep, you still will have some good folks that get on the bench and some people that ought not to be there,” said Craig Enoch, a former Texas Supreme Court justice.
Last week, voters in a 20-county district along the Gulf Coast elected to an influential state appeals court Rudy Delgado, who resigned his seat on a lower court earlier this year after he was indicted on federal bribery charges. Prosecutors claim that as a judge, he accepted bribes for favorable rulings.
Delgado’s attorney said in court documents he was “no longer campaigning for office,” and he was absent from the campaign trail — though he did report spending hundreds of campaign dollars on iPads and other goodies at a local Best Buy. Delgado did not return requests for comment.
Delgado may never preside over a case; the State Commission on Judicial Conduct has already suspended him from serving on a lower court, and the commission could suspend him from serving on the court of appeals even as his criminal case proceeds. His Republican opponent, Jaime Tijerina, worked to spread the word about Delgado’s criminal indictment.
But even still, Delgado was a Democrat running in a heavily-Democratic South Texas judicial district; party officials and billboards on the side of the road urged voters to cast straight-ticket Democratic ballots. With that boost, Delgado eked out a victory.
In the other judicial two races for 13th Court of Appeals, Democrats bested their Republican opponents by about 30,000 votes. Delgado beat Tijerina by about 3,000.
The difference, Tijerina said, was made by voters who heeded calls from Democratic party officials to cast a straight-ticket ballot.
“What role did straight-ticket voting have? It was the single biggest factor in his victory,” Tijerina said. “There’s a lot of unknowns about straight-ticket going away. But I think — all other things being equal — I think I would’ve been elected.”